Suicide, serial killers, pet bunny rabbits lost on the mean city streets—the lyrical themes of Pixel Revolt, the fifth album in as many years from San Francisco singer-songwriter John Vanderslice, are not real "up." About half of these 14 originals were composed after the 2004 election; an American soldier's misadventures in Iraq anchor "Plymouth Rock." And the remainder—such as the impressionist stroll through "New Zealand Pines"—sprang from the ashes of a painful breakup.
Yet in presenting these often-troublesome vignettes, Vanderslice (assisted by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats) has crafted a slew of beguiling, imaginative arrangements that hold the ear delicately yet firmly. "Peacocks in the Video Rain" turns ever so slowly, a diamond on a dais, accented with vintage keyboards that evoke the Reagan-era MTV star its narrative suggests; the bells and gentle cymbals of "Trance Manual" twinkle gently like beacons on a distant shore.
It is a testament to Vanderslice's sly skills that clearly delineating between the personal and political in lines like "Ohh, dressed like that/you are the flag of a dangerous nation" is both difficult and, more importantly, unnecessary in order to appreciate these songs. Ultimately, that which doesn't make us reach for a straight razor (or the "off" button) makes us stronger, and on Pixel Revolt, Vanderslice wrestles thorny experiences and imaginings into new shapes that are a treat to unfold and scrutinize further. KURT B. REIGHLEYTHE TIME FLYS
Aside from the asinine Top-40 phonies, what's left of punk-rock populi is plumped with 1979 wannabes whose main goal in life is to record one 7-inch single that'll be described as "Killed By Death style" on eBay 10 years from now. This was a revolution?
The Time Flys fly that fading flag, but step back further to the 1972–75 era, before punk was so codified, when a suburban jerk could sing of third-base conquests and end his day with a Dictators LP and a brown bag of model glue. It seems digging for first-wave arcana has gotten to the point where the Gizmos (the first lineup, of course) would be the best reference point here, and if that means anything to you, run out and buy this CD now, 'cause it's a good one.
Considering this crew is from Oakland, California, and one member is in the increasingly jammy Cuts, Time Flys are all bored beer swilling, Midwest blurt-out goofitude. Songs about dumb friends, dope gulping, and occasional lapses into caveman analogies harken to that pre-Pistols blip when "punks" would rather spend their rent money on comic books than haircuts. Stuttering on-the-fly guitar solos, snotty vocals, and that genetic ability to drop a tune at two minutes are the trashy traits. The woozy, obscure doo-wop cover, "Teenage Tears," is the kind of inspired touch lost on most retro raw punks these days. Plus Fly is spitballed with enough lyrical weirdness and explosive noisy bridges that the time travel isn't all backwards. ERIC DAVIDSONAUGUST BORN
Sometimes I wonder what sort of world it would be if Drag City, possessed of no profit motive, mailed Ben Chasny's records to everyone free of charge. Albums like Dark Noontide and School of the Flower inspire the listener to consider the river's current or contemplate a tree for an afternoon. Fitting then, that Chasny's latest effort is a postal-service collaborative with Hiroyuki Usui (AKA "L"), the man responsible for the spiritually rejuvenating (but criminally unheard) Holy Letters. Much like their respective solo work, Chasny and Usui make August Born an organic effort, layered with warm breezes of guitar, bells, feedback, and field recordings of a dead bird's burial.
Presumably because of linguistic barriers, the album is minimally vocal, forcing the listener to zero in on the Zen-like balance between ambience and melody. The two do moan together, however, on the more Far-Eastern numbers ("A Lot Like You," "Song of the Dead") and Chasny offers his wine-and-incense voice to the album's centerpiece "Birds & Sun & Clay." Usui's brief solo track approaches a Japanese/Appalachian hybrid of banjo-strumming weirdness and Chasny's solo "You Will Be Warm" serves as a gentle, reflective album closer.
There is a certain comfort that comes from listening to Chasny. Somehow, through his intimate plucking and strumming, he makes soundtracks for the day's sacred moments; when you're still awake as the recycling truck rolls by, making coffee as your housemates drool, cleaning up last night's spilt beer and candle wax. BRIAN J. BARRVARIOUS ARTISTS
Live at KEXP Volume One
Seattle's truly alternative station, KEXP, is well known for promoting live music. And while for most commercial stations that simply means naming a list of upcoming shows (which KEXP also often does), the nonprofit gets fans hyped on upcoming events by spinning tracks by touring and local bands in the weeks before their next Seattle appearance (and for the shows KEXP sponsors around the country). Another vital element in its band buzz generator, though, is the in-studio session, which offers both an interview with an act and a sampling of what their show might have in store, with bands ranging from local newbies to big-ticket acts.
KEXP compiled their favorite in-studio guests on one CD, Live at KEXP Volume One. (It was previously available only to subscribers.) For those who listen to KEXP's midday shows, a number of the artists are familiar station favorites—My Morning Jacket, Flaming Lips, Ben Gibbard, the Shins, and Interpol all provide tracks here (the latter two sound especially stunning, and Gibbard acoustic and change of the popular indie crop, as well as marquee names like Air and Sonic Youth. Although Live should please daytime variety show KEXP loyalists, a suggestion for future releases would be to broaden the spectrum/tempo/vibe more, cherry picking from bands blanketing a wider array of the station's eclectic programming (Blue Scholar's "Brick" only slightly shifts the disc's makeup). That being said, the comp remains a tribute to how hard the station works to give touring acts a much-needed outlet in which to attract new, independent-music-focused fans. And corporate radio's got nothing on that. JENNIFER MAERZTHE FALL OF TROY
Doppelgänger, the title of the Fall of Troy's Equal Vision debut, could very well be a comment on the fact that this record is simply a mirror of the band's old self. Their new material sounds much like their previous output, and the disc features four re-recorded tracks that previously appeared on their self-titled Lujo release from 2003.
Even in stasis, though, Fall of Troy's attack is fierce and righteously unsteady, pulling from brutal hardcore, math rock, and soft-to-loud dynamics of predecessors like At the Drive In.
Doppelgänger's opening track, "I Just Got This Symphony Going," is a schizophrenic blast that daringly prepares the listener for the unstable path that lies ahead. Blasts of heavy bass and drums drown the lightning quick guitar, while singer Thomas Erak shrieks one line before delicately singing the next. The speed doesn't falter, but the mood is slightly less aggravated on "Ace One, Scene One," while "F.C.P.R.E.M.I.X." plays around in quick-paced, jazz-inspired hardcore.
It's impressive that this much energy and noise can come from only three people. In the two-and-a-half-minute "Laces Out, Dan!" Erak asks, in a chilling high-pitched voice, "Do you think that I am joking?! Are you really that unprepared?" And as the guitars thunder in, stabbing you in the ears with calculated feedback and string bending, and the drums work to deafen you, you know for damn sure this is definitely not for laughs. MEGAN SELING
The Fall of Troy perform Sat Aug 20 at El Corazón, 5 pm, $8, all ages.
Inna City Pressure
Dr. Israel's 1998 Inna City Pressure, (recently re-released by Roir) attempts to bring together all of the developed elements of reggae—roots, dancehall, dub, and jungle. It also reaffirms reggae's alliance with hiphop and punk. Despite the disparate elements, the CD surprisingly doesn't fall apart or spin out of control. Dr. Israel—who programmed the music, wrote the lyrics, and provided the toasting (or DJing; in Jamaican pop music, the DJ is a rapper)—keeps the wild profusion of musical styles under control. He does this by sticking strictly to the basic politics of a Rasta: The Brooklyn-based Dr. Israel is anti-violence, anti-racism, pro-economic improvement for blacks, pro-overthrowing the rich, and always dreaming of a united Africa. The lyrical content might be predictable, but the music is complex, dense, and continually interesting. One of Pressure's standout tracks is a cover of Willie Williams's "Armageddon Time," one of the greatest reggae songs ever made, and one that was also covered by the Clash. Israel's version of the track manages to convincingly electrify the old reggae song with futuristic jungle beats, proving he really is the man with the remedy. CHARLES MUDEDE